"Meaning and Memory" at Ground Zero

Architect Daniel Libeskind discusses his plans for the site where the Twin Towers once stood

Aside from architecture students, few Americans had heard of Daniel Libeskind when two hijacked jetliners destroyed New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But his obscurity quickly faded after Studio Libeskind won the competition to redesign the devastated site with a plan that included the 1,776-foot Freedom Tower, scheduled to break ground this fall.

His success is a case of local boy makes good. The Polish-born architect, now 57, is the son of Holocaust survivors who emigrated to New York, where he attended the city's elite Bronx High School of Science. There his attention switched from music (he was a virtuoso pianist) to math, and finally to architecture, which he later studied at New York City's Cooper Union.

Libeskind has long written and taught about architecture, and his buildings include the acclaimed Jewish Museum in Berlin, one of the city's top attractions. On Mar. 4, Libeskind sat down with BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Stephen B. Shepard as part of the Captains of Industry series at New York's 92nd Street Y. Here's an edited summary of what Libeskind had to say on various topics:

Good architecture is a product of more than just an individual's talent at the drawing board.

I consider myself an architect of a traditional kind, where humanistic disciplines were part of architecture, where architecture was a cultural discourse. It wasn't just technology and making objects. Go back in history, and look at architects I really admire, like Christopher Wren, who was a great scientist. Alberti, the great architect of the Renaissance in Florence, wrote books on family law. I have never been a great believer of the idea that a genius architect who makes a tour de force building is what makes architecture.

The importance of both the building and the city around it.

You can't divide them. Like everything else in life, you need a foreground and a background. Not everything can be foreground. Look at the Guggenheim [Museum] of Frank Lloyd Wright. Because it has the background of standard commercial buildings, it looks great. But if everything was like the Guggenheim, [New York] would be a horrible city.

On moving his family to Berlin to see through the completion of the Jewish Museum, which took 12 years. It wasn't easy for us because quite frankly, many members of my family initially didn't even want to come and visit us. They couldn't believe that someone from my kind of background would live in Berlin. And it was very difficult to build this building. I think if you had asked people in the know, "What are the chances of this building being realized?" they would have said zero -- not even 1%. But I thought it was good thing. You have to hope that something better will occur.

You know, I was in Berlin on September 11. It was the first day the Jewish Museum opened. The first day. And at that point I said, "I'm returning to New York and Lower Manhattan." I wanted to contribute in some way to rebuilding.

His vision for the World Trade Center site, which came during a descent into Ground Zero. I was working, to be honest, on something rather different -- until I came to the site. I asked the Port Authority if I could go down into the bedrock. It's only when I went down and touched the floor level physically that I had a complete kind of new vision.

It wasn't gradual. It was through a physical connection with that space and with the light. I actually asked somebody if they could lend me their telephone, and I called my studio in Berlin. I said, "Drop everything that you've been doing."

His master plan, which specifies where the site's office towers, memorial, transit hub, and amenities should go. It's important to explain to the public that a master plan is not a bunch of lines on a paper. To make a living master plan means to create a balance between the flexibility that a plan has to have in order to be able to accommodate new ideas and uses, and delivering to the public what they saw in the original plans. The virtue of this plan is that it has brought people to a consensus so that the site is moving ahead.

Even the towers that [won't be] immediately built, we have already designed from the bottom up. So it's possible that the base of the towers, four or five stories, will be built anyway, with shops and streets that are lively, and then later the towers themselves. The idea is to create a space and a place for people that's friendly, interesting, and meaningful.

On developing the plan with input from the city, state, the leaseholder, and the public. I think because this project has been born in a democratic, participatory process, and that so many people with different interests were involved, it's very healthy. I think at the end, that will be reflected in the spirit of this project. I don't believe that there's some sort of edict from some king or general, some "build me that," and then it happens. Those projects are never good ones.

The link between Libeskind's high-profile designs in New York and Berlin. The similarity is that they're both not merely about concrete and steel and glass. They're about spiritual, cultural longing. They have to represent something that's not just a bunch of objects standing in space. They have to be about existence, meaning, and memory.

The musical composition that best embodies his site design. If I were limited to one piece of music, I would probably take the Goldberg Variations -- if only for the reason that Bach wrote it to put somebody to sleep!

The world as a "hotel." I tell you, I'm most familiar with a suitcase. We have been living in and out of suitcases for a long time. But as opposed to many architects who have glorious visions of the perfect house, I see the whole world basically as a hotel. We're here only for a limited amount of time. We have to leave something to others.

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